Improving Our Craft

storyAlways on the lookout for ways to get better at what we do, I’m beginning a regular series of posts here that I hope will provide you with some great insights and thought provocation where our craft is concerned. This gem recently crossed my desk. How does the old saying go? If the shoe fits … Drink deeply!

I am forever battling the verb “to have.”
It is an inherently weak verb.
Anytime we use it, there is probably a stronger verb that could be used instead.
“Have an impact” is passive, “make an impact” is active — etc., etc., etc.

It’s also true that the past perfect, which uses “had” (he had gone to England), is almost never necessary in storytelling. It’s almost always entirely adequate to use the plain past tense (he went to England), because we’re almost always telling the events of stories in simple chronological order. Or probably should be.

If you have a long flashback section, you can use the past perfect in the very first sentence, and then switch to simple past tense for the rest of the sentences in the story, because you’ve already established that the events you’re describing happened earlier than whatever you said before:

He was the best student in the entire school.
He had gone to England to pursue his dream of a European degree. (The past perfect tells us this happened prior to the events in the previous sentence.)
He loved his classes. He did well. (Simple past tense; we don’t have to say He had loved his classes. He had done well.)

But once in a while, you really, really need the verb “to have.”
Here’s an example of a place where it was needed, but the writer failed to use it — this is Garrison Keillor, from “Writer’s Almanac,” talking about Samuel Johnson:

“In 1735, he married a widow who was 20 years his senior. He set out to find an intelligent wife….”

Actually, the widow was intelligent, and he didn’t marry her and THEN set out to find an intelligent wife, as this pair of sentences suggests.
The past perfect tense would have solved this:
“In 1735, he married a widow who was 20 years his senior. He had set out to find an intelligent wife….”

H.T. to Doug Brendel for this writing insight. Doug talks and writes. He raises funds. He is a husband, father and an all-around interesting guy. Here’s evidence.

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